Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram were excited about the prospect of starting a family by fostering and adopting a child. But as they prepared to attend their first day of foster-parent training at Holston United Methodist Home for Children in northeastern Tennessee last January, they received an email from the agency telling them not to come.
The group was refusing to help the couple because they are Jewish.
“As a Christian organization, our executive team made the decision several years ago to only provide adoption services to prospective adoptive families that share our belief system in order to avoid conflicts or delays with future service delivery,” the email said, according to court documents.
Although it is a religious organization, Holston receives taxpayer funding and, on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, assists families with foster-care placement, training and other related services.
On Wednesday, the Rutan-Rams, along with six others, sued the Department of Children’s Services and its commissioner, Jennifer Nichols, claiming it violated the couple’s rights to religious freedom and equal protection in the Tennessee Constitution by using state funds to support agencies that discriminate based on religious beliefs.
“It’s infuriating to learn our tax dollars are funding discrimination against us,” Gabriel Rutan-Ram said in a news release from the Tennessee chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “If an agency is getting tax money to provide a service, then everyone should be served — it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Catholic or an atheist. We’re all citizens of Tennessee, regardless of our religion.”
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Holston, did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment late Thursday. Holston is not named as a defendant in the suit.
Brad Williams, the president and chief executive of Holston, said in a statement to NBC News that his agency wants to make sure that “vulnerable children” do not “lose access to Christian families.”
“Holston Home places children with families that agree with our statement of faith, and forcing Holston Home to violate our beliefs and place children in homes that do not share our faith is wrong and contrary to a free society,” Williams added.
The lawsuit comes two years after the state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, signed a bill providing legal protections to taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption agencies that deny services to people based on their sexual orientation or religion. Other states that have passed similar laws include Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Virginia, South Dakota and North Dakota.
Leaders of organizations like the Anti-Defamation League’s Southern Division and the Campaign for Southern Equality publicly decried Lee’s move, calling the bill discriminatory.
“Allowing a taxpayer-funded child placement agency to discriminate is outrageous,” said Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the ADL’s Southern Division. “No child should be denied a loving foster or adoptive home simply because of a prospective parent’s religion, sexual orientation or identity.”
Elizabeth and Gabriel Rutan-Ram turned to fostering and adoption in January 2021 after learning they could not have biological children of their own. They found a young boy with a disability in the Florida foster care system who “appeared resilient, upbeat, and adorable,” the lawsuit says.
The couple contacted the Florida Department of Children and Families to start the foster-to-adopt process but were told out-of-state families had to first receive certification in their home state. Once the process was complete in Tennessee, Florida would allow the Rutan-Rams to assume guardianship. After six months of fostering the child, they would then be allowed to start the adoption process.
The lead-up included a training program and a home-study certification conducted by a private, Tennessee-licensed child-placing agency. For help fulfilling the requirements, the Rutan-Rams reached out to Holston, the only agency near their home in Knox County offering to provide those services for out-of-state placements, according to the news release announcing the lawsuit.
The organization initially agreed and set up an appointment for the couple’s first training. But on Jan. 21, 2021, Elizabeth Rutan-Ram received an email from an employee telling her the agency could not serve the couple because they are Jewish.
“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Elizabeth said in a statement. “It was the first time I felt discriminated against because I am Jewish. It was very shocking. And it was very hurtful that the agency seemed to think that a child would be better off in state custody than with a loving family like us.”
The couple then reached out to other child-placing agencies in their county but none would help them get the certification for an out-of-state adoption.
“Because there was no other agency in the Knox County area that would provide the foster-parent training and certification for the adoption of an out-of-state child, the Rutan-Rams were unable to adopt the boy from Florida,” the news release says.
Over the last few months, the couple has been fostering a teenage girl and are in the process of adopting her. They plan to foster and adopt at least one more child.
In November, a lawyer representing the couple sent a letter to the commissioner and general counsel of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and to Williams, Holston’s president and chief executive, explaining that the agency violated the Tennessee Constitution and requesting the department sever contracts with Holston. The lawyer never received a response, according to the lawsuit.
A month later, Holston sued the Biden administration, “challenging a federal regulation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation in programs funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” the Rutan-Rams’ lawsuit says. In its lawsuit, the agency said that it refuses services to “prospective foster or adoptive parents who do not subscribe to Holston’s understanding of Christianity.”
In their own lawsuit, the Rutan-Rams are joined by six other Tennessee taxpayers — four Christian leaders, one psychologist who works with foster parents and children, and the treasurer for the Tennessee chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. All said they disagree with religious discrimination by state-funded agencies.
Their goal in filing the case is so others “do not again suffer the humiliation and loss of opportunity that Holston’s discrimination inflicted on” the Rutan-Rams, court documents say, “and so that their tax payments do not fund similar discrimination against anyone else in the future.”